"To advance through research, education and symposia, an increased public awareness of the Cape Fear region's unique history."
Wilmington, Abolition and the Underground Railroad
Bernhard Thuersam, Executive Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute Papers
“Free States.” But how true is this romantic image of high drama, and how much is the stuff of legend? While there is no question that many antebellum slaves might have departed their plantations with the intention of discarding slavery, there is little if any hard evidence that there was an active “underground railroad” in existence in the Cape Fear region either before or during the War Between the States.
For many years Wilbur Seibert’s 1898 “The Underground Railroad From Slavery to Freedom” was a staple for researchers, though it was written many years after the War and depended greatly on the memoirs of white abolitionists who put themselves at the center of slave escapes northward. Another book about this legend is William Still’s “The Underground Railroad” (1872) which was written by an African-American in Philadelphia, though he relied upon stories and what is best termed hearsay to illuminate his book. His approach differed from Seibert’s as he made the slaves the initiators of the quest for freedom and minimized the white abolitionists claims of great accomplishment.
An “Underground Railroad” In Wilmington?
With regard to the maroon communities that might have harbored runaways, Graham Hodges in "Slave and Soldier, Studies in African American History and Culture" (pp. 344-347), mentions "many instances where free blacks held other blacks as slaves. Nor was
it unusual for maroon communities...to have their own black slaves among them, just as some blacks had Indian slaves and some
Indians had black slaves, and some Indians had Indian slaves. Maroons, (author Eugene) Genovese reminds us, "often enslaved captives," including black slaves of whites. The maroons were often not popular with free blacks or slaves, who resented their bandit activities on the roads where their main victims were traveling blacks, and also their "making free with slaves provisions, stock and women folk." (T)he theories of race, class and African solidarity were little recognized." Much like an tenuous "escape" on a passing ship,
a runaway slave could find himself enslaved again.
It should be remembered that the plantation was not a walled prison and slaves could easily walk away, though unsure of a better life awaiting them elsewhere. If they ventured northward, they could easily find a living environment less hospitable than the one they left as Northerners were commonly unfriendly toward free blacks and ostracized them. In the case of William Riley who came to Niagara (Canada) in 1802, his daughter related that “My father…was a slave. No he did not run away. He came with his master all the way from Fredericksburg, Virginia, driving the carriage with six horses” and staying at Niagara Falls. Riley met a gentleman from Niagara and simply walked across the Niagara Gorge to what he envisioned as freedom, but what might actually be poverty and a bleak future. More on the reality of Canada below.
The Quakers of mid-State (Guilford County) were known for their
anti-slavery stance; leader Levi Coffin is claimed to be a head of the "underground railroad." Like Harriet Tubman, Coffin is credited with bringing 100 slaves northward to freedom annually for many years, but thsesw numbers are dwarfed by the antebellum manumission efforts of Virgininians and North Carolinians alone. Despite the claims of postwar abolitionists regarding their prewar efforts, the 1850 Census showed
North Carolina registered only 64 slaves as fugitives, ten years later
this number dropped to 61.
While slaves running away from their owners is not known to be widespread in the Cape Fear region preceding the War Between the States, one of the few mentioned is Abraham Galloway from Brunswick County. Galloway is claimed to have left his owner in 1857 and traveled
to Philadelphia, then to Canada and finally settling in Ohio and becoming
an abolitionist, (Strength Through Struggle, Bill Reaves). At that time,
Ohio was a dangerous place to proclaim oneself an abolitionist after
Elijah Lovejoy was murdered there in 1837 for simply printing
abolitionist literature. Galloway did not linger long in Philadelphia, a
city described by Frederick Douglas as “a city in which prejudice
against color is…rampant.”
The problem of slaves leaving their owners was not limited to white slaveholders, as John Carruthers Stanly of Craven County, North Carolina was the largest black slaveholder in the South. He owned a total of 163 slaves and was known as a harsh, profit-minded taskmaster who dealt daily with problems of field hands leaving his plantations.
Stanly countered this problem through his two white overseers and a spy network that included a few trusted slaves. Brister, his slave barber in
New Bern, was responsible for relaying to his owner rumors or details of planned slave escapes. Stanly's rough treatment of his slaves dispels any notions of black slaveholders being more kind to their slaves, nor did he demonstrate any pangs of conscience about selling children away from
their parents or holding free blacks in bondage.
In 1830, South Carolina legislator Robert Y. Hayne of South
Carolina spoke of free blacks in the North and said: “visit the
dark and narrow lanes, and obscure recesses, which have been assigned by common consent as the abodes of those outcasts of
the world---free people of color. Sir, there does not exist, on the
face of the whole earth, a population so poor, so wretched, so vile,
so loathsome, so utterly destitute of all the comforts, conveniences
and comforts of life as the unfortunate blacks of Philadelphia, and New York and Boston. Sir, I have had some opportunities of making comparisons between the condition of the free Negroes of the North and the slaves of the South...Sir, I have seen in the neighborhood of one of the most moral, religious and refined cities of the North, a family of free blacks, driven to the caves of the rock, and there obtaining a precarious subsistence from charity and plunder."
It is notable that during the War Between the States, recruiting blacks in Philadelphia for Northern military service had to be done clandestinely
and gathering places held in secret so as not to alarm white citizens,
and those black soldiers could not be armed until they left the city.
There is little if any real evidence of an organized network of slave escape routes in North Carolina despite Quaker anti-slavery activity in central North Carolina, and the publications of editors like
William Swaim of Greensboro who advocated the abolition of
slavery in the late 1820’s.
The form of abolition advocated then was not violent as the
Northern abolitionists promoted, it was emancipation and
repatriation to the African homeland in order to right the wrongs
of British and New England slave-traders who brought them as
slaves to these shores. To this end Judge William Gaston, in his address to the Literary Societies in 1832, made his famous plea to
the young men of North Carolina to “realize their duty of taking
up that great problem and removing the burden of slavery which
was depressing the influence, the development, and the best
interests of the State.”
Moreover, the abolition of slavery “was being freely discussed in the
State and was favored by many of our best and wisest men.” Unfortunately, this welcome anti-slavery sentiment was brought to an
end by extreme northern abolitionists who encouraged slave uprisings which led to the 1831 Nat Turner brutal murder of 60 white men,
women and children in Southampton County, Virginia.
From that point on, Southerners lived in constant fear as abolitionists intensified their attacks on the slaveholding South and advanced no practical solution to slavery other than racial warfare. An irony exists
here with the New Englanders who might have been sympathetic to the plight of the black slaves, being descended from the slave traders of Massachusetts and Rhode Island who grew wealthy selling slaves for
labor on plantations.
To underscore this irony, in his “Myths of American Slavery, author
Walter D. Kennedy states: “during the life of the underground railroad (approximately forty years), it is estimated that about 75,000 slaves escaped…In just one year alone, the (New England) slave traders
brought about 74,000 slaves
from Africa to the Americas.” Would the slaves actually better their lives
by fleeing to the people who enslaved them?
The War Between the States Period:
During the War, two Wilmington-area slaves reportedly turned
themselves over to Northern officers on a blockading ship on
June 14, 1862. Both Peter Smith and Jack Rutledge of Smithville
(now Southport) were taken aboard and put to work as deck hands on
the USS Victoria. Their motivation might have been the lure of money;
in return for revealing troop movements and strength ashore, as well as leading Northern raiding parties against North Carolinans.
In an October, 1861 letter from local Camp Wyatt, Colin Shaw writes
his wife that "Several Negroes attempted to go out the Blockade last Sunday, were captured and lodged in jail...Sunday before three Negroes escaped from Smithville & it is believed reached one of Old Abe's vessels lying off Fort Caswell. This was not just black slaves leaving for the blocaders as Shaw continues..."Two white men from Wilmington
attempted last week to hop the Fort at night in a fishing smack to communicate with the enemy, were captured and lodged in jail. Their attempt at desertion and treason might have seen them marched before
a firing squad, or hanged.
In another case, a slave named William Gould left a dock at Wilmington
in September, 1862 with 7 others and made their way to the blockader USS Cambridge. Gould would enlist in the US Navy and serve on the Cambridge; though this defection can be compared to Benjamin Gray,
a 12 year-old black powder boy who enlisted at Wilmington in 1863
and saw combat service on the ironclad CSS Albemarle. To underscore
blacks serving in Southern forces, Dr. Edward Smith, Dean of
American Studies at American University, estimated that by February 1865, 1150 blacks had served in the Confederate Navy which amounts
to about 20% of total naval personnel.
Nonetheless, the wartime treason of those like Gould and the infamous Robert Smalls at Charleston should not to be confused with the
underground railroad legend as they were being lured away by
the Northern military to fight against their neighbors, as was done
by the British in the late 1770's. The British then, and the Northerners
later, used slave defections to either provoke a race war in the South,
or disrupt agricultural production that sustained the Southern
war for independence.
Emancipation Societies in the South:
were published, one by a Southern man and one on Tennessee soil. By 1824, the Tennessee Manumission Society had twenty branches and 700 members, and in 1825, William Swaim was publishing the Patriot in Greensborough, North Carolina, which contained much anti-slavery matter. By 1827, there were 130 Abolition Societies in the United States, of
which 106 were in the then slave-holding States. Virginia had 8 of these societies, Tennessee had 25 with a membership of 1000, and
North Carolina had 50 with a membership of 3000.
North Carolina’s Early Efforts to End Slavery:
The anti-slavery efforts of North Carolinians began in earnest in the 1760’s at the height of British importation of African slaves here. North Carolinians gave evidence of displeasure concerning the British (and New England) slave trade in August 1774, when colonial representatives resolved in convention “that we will not import any slave or purchase any slaves or slaves after the first day of November next”, which was modeled upon Virginia’s anti-slave importation resolution of May 1769. In both cases, the Royal Governors' refused to consider the ban on importing slaves and simply followed the dictates of the Crown.
The Revolution interrupted the slave trade into North Carolina, but
in an effort to defeat the American independence movement Virginia’s Royal Governor Lord Dunmore’s proclaimed that on November 7, 1775, that “all indentured servants, Negroes, or others…are free, that all able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesties Troops,
as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing the Colony to a proper sense of their duty to His Majesty’s Crown and dignity.”
in the Declaration of Independence regarding King George fomenting
slave insurrection in the colonies. While not all blacks fought for the British, it is known that free blacks were more likely to join with the patriots,
and freed slaves would fight against American independence. Abraham Lincoln would later copy Dunmore’s proclamation to both attract slaves to his army and incite slave revolt and race war in the South.
The end of the Revolution witnessed very strong anti-slavery sentiment and emancipation societies were becoming frequent in the South by 1800, with one-half the delegates to the American Abolition Conventions coming from the South between 1794 and 1809, after that date none came from beyond Tennessee and North Carolina.
It was in 1819, that Reverend William Meade organized a branch of the American Colonization Society in Raleigh, with Governor John Branch as President. By 1829, eleven branches of this Society existed in North Carolina, and they conveyed freed blacks to Liberia, Haiti, Indiana, Ohio and Philadelphia. The Quakers of North Carolina were involved in this project as well, thinking repatriation of black people as the best solution to the problem of slavery here. We know too that Eastern North Carolina sent many freed slaves to Liberia---in 1825, the former slaves of David Patterson of Orange County set sail, and Thomas Lassiter’s freed slaves from Halifax sailed in 1845. In 1827, the brig “Nautilus” left Norfolk with 164 free born blacks aboard from Wayne, Pasquotank and Perquimans Counties, with the Carolina Observer newspaper remarking that the “good wishes of this State attend them.”
The Underground Railroad: Legend, or Fact?
Leon Litwack’s “North of Slavery,” uncovers the extreme antagonism toward the black man very common in the antebellum north;and in “The Liberty Line, The Legend of the Underground Railroad,”
Larry Gara found little evidence of any well-organized or widespread underground railroad in the North. Both books ably demonstrate that the facts do not support the legend or a widespread escape network we have come to believe existed.
The legend of the underground railroad “is a melodrama,” claims author Larry Gara in The Liberty Line. “The villains are the slave catchers and their vicious bloodhounds; occasionally the master himself is depicted as
the slave-hunter. The abolitionists…are idealists of fortitude and courage…possessing the traits of character which ennobled and
dignified human nature.” Gara continues, “The villain too is a stereotype.
He is a mean Southerner, a term synonymous in the popular legend with
the slaveholder or defender of the slave system. He too, is something
other than human, in this case something less. The whole antebellum
South was a dismal swamp of slavery---a cesspool of vice---and the inhabitants lacked ethical principles or the rudiments of human decency…God-fearing and righteous New Englanders on the one side
and the wicked Southerners on the other.”
Where Did The Legend Originate?
Gara’s conclusion is that “the underground railroad was primarily the creation of postwar abolitionists” embellishing their anti-slavery credentials, possibly to obtain well-paying posts in the radical Republican administrations, or for sheer vanity. The author points out that after examining the traditional sources, it seemed obvious that “the legend was a mixture of fact and fiction” as it was grounded in the memoirs and reminiscences of descendants and friends of white abolitionists. To underscore this reasoning, Gara states that in 1991 an archeology graduate student at the University of Akron conducted an archeological search of 17 historic Ohio houses said to have been connected with the underground railroad. The student’s conclusion was that none of the homes he examined had tunnels or secret places of concealment. “If such constructions existed at all,” he wrote, “they must be extremely rare.” As Gara points out, “Most legends have many versions and the story of the underground railroad is not exception. Few people can provide details when asked about the institution (and) specific information is usually crowded out by vague generalizations. The underground railroad is accepted on faith as part of America’s heritage.”
Free Blacks in the North:
of them in New York and New Jersey. By 1830, conditional emancipation had virtually eliminated slavery in former slave-trading States by legislative action, or selling slaves for labor in the South as Northerner Eli Whitney’s invention made cotton production more profitable. Interestingly, the
New England slave trade was still flourishing by 1861 with the ship
“Nightingale” of Boston commanded by Francis Bowen, being captured “off the African coast with 961 Negroes on board and expecting more.” Ironically, Captain John Newland Maffitt, a famous Confederate
blockade runner was actively intercepting New England slave ships
in the late 1850’s as a US Navy captain.
Antebellum free-blacks in New York could not vote without
minimum property ownership, and black New York minister
Samuel E. Cornish saw New York City as tainted with
“an ever-present, ever-crushing Negro hate.”
Frederick Douglas saw Philadelphia in much the same way.
As an example of free-blacks prospering in the South, in 1850
Buffalo free-blacks held $57,610 in property, while in New Orleans free-blacks held $2,354, 640.
It is important to note that freedom did not necessarily confer citizenship
on free blacks in the North until the post-civil war era, and most Northern whites would maintain a careful distinction between granting blacks legal protection (which slaves also enjoyed in the South) and political and social equality. Despite the absence of slavery in the North, one observer remarked, “chains of a stronger kind still manacled their limbs from which no legislative act could free them; a mental and moral subordination and inferiority, to which tyrant custom has here subjected all the sons and daughters of Africa.” If a slave running away from a North Carolina plantation thought his life would be better in the North, he would find
that not much would change except he or she had no one to care for them.
The State of Massachusetts wanted no blacks, free or otherwise within their borders after the elimination of bondage. The legislature voted “to expel all Negroes who were not citizens of one of the States.” Boston authorities sought to implement this measure by ordering the immediate deportation of 240 Negroes in the State, most of them natives of Rhode Island, New York, Philadelphia, and the West Indies. This was the State which formed the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment, though the reason was to allow white citizens to avoid service while counting black soldiers against the general State quota of troops.
The black man was not welcome in Ohio as an aroused populace forcibly thwarted an attempt to settle the 518 emancipated slaves of Virginia’s
John Randolph. Defending that action, an Ohio congressman warned
“the banks of the Ohio (River) would be lined with men with muskets on their shoulders to keep off the emancipated slaves.” Ohio also provided
a classic example of how anti-immigration legislation could be invoked to harass Negro residents. After 1829, when “the rapid increase of the
Negro population alarmed Cincinnati…white mobs roamed through Cincinnati’s Negro quarters, spreading terror and destruction.” Subsequently, the Negro residents sent a delegation to Canada to
explore emigration and returned with a cordial invitation from the
governor of Upper Canada. An estimated 1100 to 2200 Negroes then departed from the city to settle in Canada.
Three States---Illinois, Indiana and Oregon---incorporated anti-immigration provisions into their constitutions. “The tendency, strong
and irresistible, of the American mind,” an Indianan declared, “is finally
to accomplish a separation of the two races.” In 1856, the Indiana State Supreme Court ruled “the policy of the State is…is to exclude any further ingress of Negroes, and to remove those already among us as speedily
as possible.” By 1840, some 93% of the Northern free-black population lived in States, which completely or practically excluded them from the
right to vote. Only in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and
Maine (where most Negroes were deported) could blacks vote on
an equal basis with whites.
After visiting New York in 1832, an English traveler assessed the Negroes position and concluded: “To be worth $250 (the
requirement of financial worth for blacks to vote) is not a trifle for
a man doomed to toil in he lowest stations; few Negroes are
in consequence competent to vote.
They are in fact little better than slaves, although called free.”
(Carl D. Arfwedson, The United States and Canada in 1832, 1833
and 1834. London, 1834).
Canada: Slaves and Free Blacks:
What was Canada’s own experience with African slavery?
& Butler, 1993). By 1760, it is estimated that 1100 black slaves lived in New France, mostly around Montreal and working as house servants or farm labor. In the treaties between France and England that ended warfare in 1760 and 1763, the victorious English guaranteed that African servitude would be protected in British North America.
By 1784 there were over 4000 blacks in Canada with at least 1800 of them held in bondage. Additionally, many slaves were Indians, and many Indians held black slaves.
The British carried on an unofficial slave trade during the American Revolution as they captured black slaves from New England and New York, and sold them on the Montreal slave market. Some Canadian military officers captured slaves in New York and continued to hold them in bondage on their own estates. The irony of this is demonstrated with the British policy of offering freedom to black slaves who would rise up against their owners in the American South in 1775 and flee to British lines.
The Slave Bill of 1793 in Canada did not free one slave, though it forbade the importation of slaves into the province. The children of slaves born after the date of the act would be free on their twenty-fifth birthday, and the children of these children would be born free. This was somewhat humanitarian, but the act made it difficult if not impossible to voluntarily
free slaves. An unforeseen result of the 1793 act occurred in 1805
after the Michigan Territory was incorporated into the United States.
After 1805, local laws against slavery were strictly enforced in Michigan and the territory immediately became a haven for enslaved Canadian
blacks escaping across the border. So many slaves fled Canadian slave owners that they demanded Lt. Governor Francis Gore intervene
to stop the exodus.
The 1793 Act’s ban on importing slaves made American blacks free upon reaching Canadian territory, and this news traveled quickly after 1812. Faced with a swelling black population of runaway slaves in the Northern States, which threatened the white electorate, State legislatures began passing laws restricting the franchise of free blacks.
The life of free blacks and slaves in Canada was not comfortable, and in most cases the white social elite saw them as “pilferers, liars and thieves.” After the War of 1812, most Canadian slave-owners preferred to free their slaves rather than provide for them, especially in infirmity and old age. With the very small number of free blacks in white-dominated Canadian communities, the electorate was not threatened as the blacks seemed to avoid voting in blocs and thus avoided any residency or financial worth requirements that disenfranchised Northern US free-blacks who would bloc-vote and swing elections. Canadian schools were rigidly segregated with the Common School Act of 1850 setting this into law, and like churches in the American South, Canadian congregations had blacks among them, but in 1839 according to Mary Ann Guillian, black Baptists took over the chapel and created a segregated congregation.
The New York Herald devoted an eight-column article on January 5, 1860 to the issue of runaway slaves and “described the settlements of escaped “servants” in Ontario, Canada, a terminus of the underground railroad. Its conclusion was that “the fugitive slaves go into Canada as beggars and the mass of them commit larceny and lay in jail until they become lowered and debased, and ready for worse crimes”(Weisberger). There was occasion when runaway slaves were returned to the US, which was the case if they were wanted for criminal prosecution.
The low esteem black British soldiers were held in was demonstrated by the “Colored Corps” veterans who served in the military and received only half the land promised to white veterans. Blacks in Canada performed menial labor and many joined the Colored Corps simply for a regular income. Most of the black men in the Corps in 1839 were illiterate with 40 out of 48 men making marks for their signatures. At the census of 1871, nearly 30% of Canada’s black population was illiterate.
About the Author:
Bernhard Thuersam is the Executive Director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute in Wilmington. A native of Niagara Falls, New York, he has been a devoted student of world history since 1958. He
is a former Chairman of the Cape Fear Museum Board of Trustees.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Webster-Hayne Debate: Speech of Robert Y. Hayne, January 25, 1830
North Carolina History, H. Lefler, UNC Press, 1934
Wilmington During the Civil War, McEachern-Williams, UNC Wilmington
Slave and Soldier, G. Hodges, Garland Publishing, 1993
Runaway Slaves: Franklin and Schweninger
©2006 Cape Fear Historical Institute