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The Impetus for Freedom

The Impetus for Freedom

Oh freedom; oh freedom;
Oh Lord, freedom over me,
And before I'd be a slave
I'll be buried in my grave
An' go home to my God and be free.1

There must be an innate need and longing for freedom in humans, no matter what race or color. The human animal, like any other animal, resists enslavement. Some captured Africans, while being transported across the Atlantic, hurled themselves into watery graves rather than submit to bondage. As early as 1526, Negro slaves in a Spanish colony on what became the South Carolina coast engaged in an insurrection aimed at self-redemption. Between 1526 and 1861, insurrections occurred in nearly every decade throughout the colonies and United States.2

Reminiscence of Slavery Times by J. H. and S. A. Tibbets
Courtesy Indiana Historical Society Library


Reminiscence of Slavery Times

In the fall of 1838 I saw the first fugative from Slavery, a man not more than thirty years of age, he came to our neighborhood but I do not remember where he was from. A young man Thomas Coombs & my self took him to a man near Browns Town in Ohio. I do not remember his name, we had to go in the night & of course we must get back home before morning, we could not start till after dark, we had to go near twenty miles & back, we made the trip with out any adventure except chasing a few dogs, it is impossible for me to describe my feelings under such circumstances, knowing that at that time nine out of every ten men I would meet would condem me for such conduct, but my conscience was always clear -, young Coombs was about sixteen years old & I was 19, quite young for that business. About two years after the incident just related a Mr. Butler living two & 1⁄2 miles from my Father, came to see Father knowing him to be an Abolitionist, he said there was two fugatives secreted in his barn & he did not know what to do with them, he could not bare to have them captured & carried back to Slavery. I told him I could take them to a place of safety as there was a few men in Cincinnati that would harbor them. Such men as Jame Burnet Deacon Hargrove & a few others. Mr. Butler offered to furnish a race horse that never had been worked in fills [fields?] if I would risk it & also a good covered carrage, we fixed the time for Starting

Though no insurrection ended successfully, blacks also protested and resisted slavery in a variety of other ways. Slaves broke plantation equipment, organized sit-ins, worked slowly, crippled animals, and periodically torched gin houses, farm buildings, their quarters, and parts of harvests. Some blacks detested bondage so much that they even maimed themselves or committed suicide in order to defeat the institution. As an ultimate protest, however, men, women, and even children chose to seize their freedom and run away.3

Runaways had long been a problem in the United States, even in colonial times. As early as 1641, Virginia branded recaptured slaves to identify them. Two hundred years later, in the midst of the movement to abolish slavery, bondpersons still attempted self-emancipation. Not all runaways sought permanent freedom; some escaped to relieve themselves from their cumbersome and unrelenting toil. "For the slave," one recent authority has written, "it was a psychological safety valve and a control device" to get away even for a short while.4

Fifty Dollars Reward Specie for BEN.
Courtesy Indiana Division, Indiana State Library

Henry Bibb, a fugitive slave who had made multiple escapes from the South, explained that while in slavery "among other good trades I learned the art of running away to perfection." Moreover, Bibb escaped whenever he chose to. "I made a regular business of it," Bibb boasted, "and never gave it up, until I had broken the bands of slavery, and landed myself safely in Canada, where 1 was regarded as a man, and not as a thing." Once in Canada, Bibb became the editor of the newspaper The Voice of the Fugitive.5

Apparently, some slaveholders understood and tolerated temporary runaways to some extent. Alabama, for instance, instituted a law whereby slaves must absent themselves two full days before they were considered runaways. Other slaveholders, however, believed that it was unnatural for slaves to want to escape. Blacks, they contended, were happy and content and wanted to be taken care of. "Poor ignorant devils," one Alabama slaveholder asserted, "for what do they run away. They are well clothed, work easy and have all kinds of plantation produce.''6 One physician claimed that blacks who ran away suffered from a mental illness, the symptoms of which were a "sulky and dissatisfied attitude." But, The doctor maintained, with "proper medical advice" the prognosis would be favorable.7

Reverand Josiah Henson Autobiography

So convincing was the argument of the happy and content slave that many historians have accepted the view. One even purported that slavery augmented or altered blacks' personalities and produced a "slave type.''8 Yet the runaway slave, as the feminist Lydia Maria Child wrote in 1846, was "a living gospel of freedom bound in black.''9 Every action of blacks proved to be an indication of their hatred for their condition. Their songs, for example, were one indication. "If you could hear," Lew Wallace wrote during the Civil War, "the hymn of one of these human chattels, sung in a voice that would be a fortune had it lodged in a white throat: 'Nobody knows the sorrows I've seen, Nobody knows but Jesus,' perhaps one could understand their desire for freedom.''10 Runaways, "a troublesome property," plagued every plantation, and few slaveholders had not experienced the problem.11

It has been assumed that most fugitives had a less difficult time because they were mulattoes or light in color. Historian Kenneth Stampp maintains that this is not true: "While this group was well represented among the fugitives, they were outnumbered by slaves who were described as 'black' or of seemingly 'pure' African ancestry." Certainly, many fugitives in Indiana had dark skin that made their escapes all the more dangerous. Advertisements for fugitives (such as Ben in 1825), descriptions in narratives, and the evidence in Indiana counties' Negro registers all support this position.12

The decision to run away was often a difficult one for slaves, not because they loved slavery, but because it completely severed them from their loved ones and friends. Making the decision to run away permanently sometimes took more courage than the act itself. Frederick Douglass, a fugitive and abolitionist spokesperson wrote, "No man can tell the intense agony which is felt by the slave, when wavering on the point of making his escape.''13 Josiah Henson, a slave who found freedom on the Indiana shore in the 1830s, agreed. He believed that freedom could not be sweet if his wife and children could not also enjoy it. "Abandon them I could not," he swore, "no! not even for the blessed boon of freedom. They, too, must go. They too must share with me the life of liberty.''14

When slaves had more immediate reasons for running away--for instance to avoid mutilation, whipping, branding, death, and, in the case of men, castration--they often left their families behind. In other cases they fled only after it was clear that the family unit had been permanently sundered. William Wells Brown and his mother were captured in a joint escape attempt, and his mother was subsequently sold to a trader bound for New Orleans. Her last words to William were a plea that he continue to seek his freedom. This he eventually did, "jumping ship" from a steamboat on the Ohio River upstream from Louisville. He traveled alone, and at night, for several days before Wells Brown, "a Quaker of the George Fox stamp" from whom he took his name, helped him.15

"When I thought of slavery," Brown later recalled, "with its Democratic whips--its Republican chains--its evangelical bloodhounds, and its religious slaveholders--when I thought of all this paraphernalia of American Democracy and Religion behind me, and the prospect of liberty before me, I was encouraged to press forward, my heart was strengthened, and I forgot that I was tired or hungry.''16 Brown successfully landed in Canada and became a physician, novelist, and playwright.

Frontispiece from
An Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson

Josiah Henson echoed Brown's assertion that it was a long time before he and his family found help. On a moonless night in mid-September, Henson convinced a fellow slave to row him and his family across the Ohio River. When they arrived in Indiana, Henson felt no security: "We had no friends to look to for assistance," Henson lamented, "for the population in that section of the country was then bitterly hostile to the fugitive." They managed to make it to Canada, where Henson founded the Dawn Settlement. He returned about fifty times to the South to lead other blacks to freedom in this promised land.17

For unescorted fugitives, Indiana's topography and natural scenery were just as hostile as the pro slavery element and slave catchers. Unescorted fugitives had to use their wits and their instinct for survival. Runaways usually rested by day and traveled by night; they fled more often in summer than winter.18 They undoubtedly encountered the beasts of the dense Indiana forests, including at that time cur-dogs (half wolf and half dog), bears, and pit vipers. Fugitives must have scaled the craggy, red-earth hills of southern Indiana and depended on natural hideaways to cloak them from danger. Many runaways sought refuge in the dark and forbidding caves located in the southern half of the state. Josephine Taylor, a fugitive who escaped from Kentucky with another group of slaves, hid for a while in dark, damp "Murrel's cave.''19

Neither nature nor the threat of molestation by animals deterred fugitives from traveling in the wilderness of Indiana in search of freedom. Their lust for freedom was too overwhelming to stop them, as many bore witness. "Canada," Josiah Henson wrote, "was often spoken of as the only sure refuge from pursuit, and that blessed land was now the desire of my longing heart." Aby B. Jones, a Canadian resident who passed through Indiana, remarked, "I heard that in Canada colored men were free, therefore I came here and am only sorry to say that I did not come years before I did.''20

Fugitives also voiced just what impelled them to seek freedom at the moment they did. Henry Morehead, a fugitive from Louisville, Kentucky, fled slavery because his wife and children were about to be sold: "I would rather have followed them to the grave," Morehead pronounced, "than to the Ohio River to see them go down." Henry Bibb ran away because he could not stand to see his beloved wife Malinda abused, and their small infant whipped. "To be compelled," Bibb later wrote his ex-slaveholder, "to stand by and see you whip and slash my wife without mercy, when I could offer her no protection, not even by offering myself to suffer the lash in her place, was more than I felt it to be the duty of a slave husband to endure." He concluded, "I have but one apology to make, which is this: I have only to regret that I did not start at an earlier period."21

,Peter Still

Peter and Charity Still Reproduced from William Still, Diary of the Underground Railroad

Charity Still was a black woman who brought her children from slavery in Alabama to southern Indiana with the aid of Seth Conklin of Princeton, Gibson County. They were recaptured in Vincennes and arrested, including Conklin, tried in Evansville, and returned to their owner in others planned an escape for several years. Crossing the Ohio River on a log raft with his companions, Louis was able to evade the slave catching posse that caught most of the others. He moved north, studied at Union Literary Institute in Randolph County, and later made several furtive trips back to Kentucky in an attempt to bring his sisters to freedom. Betrayed during his third attempt, while still in Indiana, Louis was reclaimed by his slaveholder, who, literally, "sold him down the river." He escaped from the river boat, however, and made his way back to Indiana--outwitting some "amateur slave hunters" along the way. It is not known if Talbert ever succeeded in securing his sisters' freedom, but he later moved to Canada and became a preacher. 23

Another fugitive from Kentucky, Charles, preferred incarceration in Indiana to slavery in Kentucky. Charles, who resided in Clark County, Indiana, apparently stole "some trifling articles" to avoid claim by his slaveholder. Sixteen Clark County residents petitioned Governor James Brown Ray to pardon the imprisoned black man so that he could be returned to slavery in Kentucky: "we believe some remedy should be provided against the evil which such a state of things produces, both in regard to the private interest of the slave holder and as it respects the relations which ought to subsist between the non-slave holding and the slave holding states bordering upon each other." The residents maintained, "we are satisfied, by the clearest proof that the said negro man is a fugitive slave belonging to Greene Kirby of the state of Kentucky, that his real name is Garrit." The attitude of the citizens of Clark County---and of Governor Ray who granted the pardon--is an indication of why some blacks went all the way to Canada for freedom rather than realizing it merely by reaching a free state. 24

Footnotes to "Impetus for Freedom" -- create page here

The Underground Railroad

Bury Me in a Free Land: Chapter listing