According to Walter Hawkins slaves constantly talked about the possibility of escape: "There arose in some an irrepressible desire for freedom which no danger or power could restrain, no hardship deterred, and no bloodhound could alarm. This desire haunted them night and day; they talked about it to each other in confidence; they knew that the system which bound them was as unjust as it was cruel, and that they ought to strive, as a duty to themselves and their children, to escape from it".
Harriet Jacobs was a slave in Edenton, North Carolina. In her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, she described what happened to her brother Benjamin, when he was caught trying to escape from the plantation: "That day seems but as yesterday, so well do I remember it. I saw him led through the streets in chains, to jail. His face was ghastly pale, yet full of determination. He had begged one of the sailors to go to his mother's house and ask her not to meet him. He said the sight of her distress would take from him all self-control. She yearned to see him, and she went; but she screened herself in the crowd, that it might be as her child had said."
Sometimes slaves ran away because they feared punishment for breaking one of the master's rules. Henry Clay Bruce, a slave in Virginia, explained in his book, The New Man: Twenty-Nine Years a Slave (1895): "During the summer, in Virginia and other southern states, slaves when threatened or after punishment would escape to the woods or some other hiding place. They were then called runaways, or runaway Negroes, and when not caught would stay away from home until driven back by cold weather. Usually they would go to some other part of the state, where they were not so well known, and a few who had the moral courage would make their way to the North, and thus gain their freedom. But such cases were rare. Some, if captured and not wishing to go back to their masters, would neither give their correct name nor that of their owner; and in such cases, if the master had not seen the notice of sale posted by the officers of the county wherein they were captured, and which usually gave the runaway's personal description, they were sold to the highest bidders, and their masters lost them and the county in which the capture was effected got the proceeds, less the expense of capture. A runaway often chose that course in order to get out of the hands of a hard master, thinking that he could not do worse in any event, while he might fall into the hands of a better master. Often they were bought by Negro traders for the cotton fields of the South."
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Runaways also knew that successful escapes were rare. Slaveowners used bloodhounds to trace their slaves. Problems of finding food and shelter in a hostile environment and the absence of maps were also other factors in understanding why most slaves failed in their bids for freedom. Moses Grandy explained the problems that runaways faced: "They hide themselves during the day in the woods and swamps; at night they travel, crossing rivers by swimming, or by boats they may chance to meet with, and passing over hills and meadows which they do not know; in these dangerous journeys they are guided by the north-star, for they only know that the land of freedom is in the north. They subsist on such wild fruit as they can gather, and as they are often very long on their way, they reach the free states almost like skeletons."
Solomon Northup was badly treated by his master and decided to runaway back to his former owner, William Ford: "Presently, looking up the bayou, I saw Tibeats and two others on horse-back, coming at a fast gait, followed by a troop of dogs. There were as many as eight or ten. Distant as I was, I knew them. They belonged on the adjoining plantation. The dogs used on Bayou Boeuf for hunting slaves are a kind of blood-hound, but a far more savage breed than is found in the Northern States. They will attack a negro, at their master's bidding, and cling to him as the common bull-dog will cling to a four footed animal. Frequently their loud bay is heard in the swamps, and then there is speculation as to what point the runaway will be overhauled - the same as a New York hunter stops to listen to the hounds coursing along the hillsides, and suggests to his companion that the fox will be taken at such a place. I never knew a slave escaping with his life from Bayou Bouef. One reason is, they are not allowed to learn the art of swimming, and are incapable of crossing the most inconsiderable stream. In their flight they can go in no direction but a little way without coming to a bayou, when the inevitable alternative is presented, of being drowned or overtaken by the dogs. In youth I had practiced in the clear streams that flow through my native district, until I had become an expert swimmer, and felt at home in the watery element."
Within a few days of leaving the plantation most runaways were brought back and heavily punished. Francis Fredric was free for nine weeks but was captured and received 107 strokes of the whip. Moses Roper, received 200 lashes and this was only brought to an end when the master's wife pleaded for his life to be spared.
A study of runaway notices of local newspapers revealed that 76 per cent of all fugitives were under 35, and 89 per cent of them were men. Another study suggested that field slaves were more likely to try and escape than house slaves. This is probably because house slaves were often better treated. This is probably because house slaves were often better treated. In some cases the slaves were treated like the slave-owners children. When this happened close bonds of affection and friendship usually developed. Trusted house slaves who had provided good service over a long period of time were sometimes promised their freedom when their master's died. However, there are many cases where this promise was not kept.
In 1834 Harriet Jacobs became a runaway. Her master, Dr. Norcom published an advert in the local newspaper: "Ran away from the subscriber, an intelligent, bright, mulatto girl, 21 years age. Five feet four inches high. Dark eyes, and black hair inclined to curl; but it can be made straight. Has a decayed spot on a front tooth. She can read and write, and in all probability will try to get to the Free States. All persons are forbidden, under penalty of the law, to harbor or employ said slave. $150 will be given to whoever takes her in the state, and $300 if taken out of the state and delivered to me, or lodged in jail."
Henry Bibb, a slave from Shelby County, Kentucky managed to escape in 1837. "One of the most self-denying acts of my whole life was to take leave of my affectionate wife, who stood before me on my departure, with dear little Frances in her arms, and with tears of sorrow in her eyes as she bid me a long farewell. It required all the moral courage that I was master of to suppress my feelings while taking leave of my little family."
The most famous case of a successful runaway was Henry Box Brown, with the help of Samuel Smith, a store-keeper in Richmond, he decided to try and escape. The two men devised a plan where the slave would be shipped to a free state by Adams Express Company. Brown paid $86 to Smith, who contacted the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, who agreed to receive the box. Smith sent the box to Philadelphia on 23rd March, 1849. According to one account "Brown's box traveled by wagon, railroad, steamboat, wagon again, railroad, ferry, railroad, and finally delivery wagon. Several times during the 27-hour journey, carriers placed the box upside-down or handled it roughly, but Brown was able to remain still enough to avoid detection." The box containing Brown was received by William Still and James Miller McKim.
The development of the underground railroad increased the number of slaves who were able to reach safety. By the middle of the 19th century it was estimated that over 50,000 slaves had escaped from the South using this method. Plantation owners became so concerned by these losses that in 1850 they managed to persuade Congress to pass the Fugitive Slave Act. In future, any federal marshal who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave could be fined $1,000. Any person aiding a runaway slave by providing shelter, food or any other form of assistance was liable to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.