Escaping Slavery: Resistance on the Run
Slavery was legal in South Carolina until 1865, during which time thousands of enslaved people of African descent bravely rejected their condition and fled to gain freedom elsewhere. This steady stream of fugitives motivated white authorities to create laws designed to check their escape and punish offenders. Some runaways were successful, but most were overwhelmed by the institutional power of slavery. Details surrounding the movements of most enslaved fugitives in early South Carolina are lost forever, but a voluminous body of extant newspaper advertisements provides intriguing snapshots of thousands of dramatic stories of courageous resistance.
Some months ago, I created a series of programs about the legal pathways out of slavery in early South Carolina (including public manumission, private manumission, and self-purchase). In today’s program, we’ll augment that series by discussing the most common method of escaping a life of forced servitude. Running away from slavery, a practice historians call marronage, was a form of resistance practiced in every colony and nation in the New World that permitted one person to legally own another. Although it might seem like an instinctive response to a bad situation, the legal status of slavery transformed marronage into a criminal offence attended by a host of painful repercussions. A thorough discussion of this topic could fill volumes, so my goal here is to provide an overview to help audiences understand the principal issues and to point curious readers towards useful resources.
Legal View of Running Away:
The laws of early South Carolina, created by a white, male minority of the population, identified enslaved people as chattel or moveable property. The owners of enslaved people required them to submit and conform to that definition, and to work peacefully to generate profit and comfort for their respective owners. When enslaved people challenged the limitations placed on their personal freedom, the laws of the land prescribed a variety of harsh punishments to check their resistance. Above all else, White authorities feared the enslaved people might take up arms and inflict violence on their owners in order to gain their freedom. The constant fear of armed insurrection shaped South Carolina’s harsh slave code, from the colony’s first slave law in 1691 to the demise of slavery in 1865. In reality, however, the use of violence to achieve freedom from slavery was a rare phenomenon, as witnessed in the Stono Uprising of 1739 and a number of suspected plots that were never set in motion, like that ascribed to Demark Vesey in 1822.
Secondary to the fear of slave violence, however, white authorities in early South Carolina and other slave-holding colonies worried constantly about the widespread tendency for enslaved people to flee from their owners. This non-violent practice, which was occasionally described as “absenting” oneself or “absconding” from one’s owner, represented a sort of personal insurrection against the conditions of slavery. From a legal point of view, the act of running away from slavery was a criminal offence because the enslaved runaway deprived his or her owner of the use and profit of their lawful property. Running away was also a form of active resistance, however, which the White, slave-holding minority of early South Carolina viewed as a serious threat to public order. From 1708 to the spring of 1865, the state’s population was dominated by enslaved people of African descent. If large numbers of enslaved people rejected their condition and worked together to challenge the status quo, their collective resistance might topple the world of white supremacy and destroy the local economy that was based on the exploitation of unfree labor.
Beginning in 1691 and continuing for many generations, South Carolina lawmakers prescribed harsh punishments for captured runaways and for anyone who assisted, sheltered, or transported an enslaved fugitive. The provincial government offered compensation to citizens, militiamen, and Native Americans who would apprehend runaways and deliver them to the proper authorities, while the owners of runaways frequently offered cash rewards for their capture. For nearly two centuries of South Carolina’s early history, enslaved runaways formed a major topic of public discourse in both rural and urban settings, and the tension between fugitives and slave owners touched the lives of nearly every inhabitant to some degree.
Triggers for Running Away:
The triggers that motivated men, women, and teenagers to run away from slavery in early South Carolina were as varied and numerous as the individuals themselves. In general, however, we might surmise with confidence that the physical act of running away was driven by an intellectual and emotional response to a negative situation. In their own languages and in their own words, thousands of enslaved individuals in early South Carolina whispered or shouted, “I cannot live in this situation any longer—I have to get away from here!”
For many enslaved fugitives, the act of running away was a spontaneous response to an acutely traumatic event, such as an episode of corporal punishment or the threat thereof, the experience or threat of sexual assault, or the forced separation from a loved one, just to name a few of the most obvious potential triggers. Other runaways were inspired by a sudden window of opportunity, such as the death of an owner or overseer, that inspired enslaved people to escape through a temporary vacuum of power. The documentary details surrounding some runaway stories suggest the execution of a premeditated scheme, fueled by simmering frustration but only set in motion after a period of patient planning. Such cases might have been a delayed reaction to a traumatic event or a measured response to the announcement of an impending change, such as a plan to move to a new location or to separate members of a family.
Regardless of the precise motivation or trigger, the act of running away was always a bold and dangerous leap into the unknown, leaving behind familiar but painful surroundings that might have included loved ones and allies. For most fugitives, the first step towards freedom required them to choose between several potential pathways. They could escape to the country, to the city, or try to gain passage out of South Carolina on a boat, stagecoach, or train.
Life as a Fugitive:
In a rural setting within the plantation landscape of South Carolina, enslaved fugitives had to choose between a pair of dangerous options. On the one hand, they could venture deeper into the wilderness to live off the land and sleep under the stars in isolation. On the other hand, they could lurk among various scattered plantations and rely on the assistance of other enslaved people to supply them secretly with food, clothing, and shelter. In either case, one’s success in avoiding detection depended greatly on one’s familiarity with the local landscape. Newcomers, especially Africans who didn’t speak English, usually failed as runaways because they were generally unprepared to navigate a new world of unfamiliar plants, animals, and waterways. Seasoned residents and natives might fare better in the wilderness, but their success still depended on access to material resources and assistance from others.
Perhaps the most successful strategy for rural runaways was to assemble into groups to form a new community in an isolated location. Like the English settlers of Caribbean colonies like Jamaica and Antigua, government officials in colonial South Carolina borrowed the Spanish word, cimarrón, to describe enslaved fugitives who established semi-permanent settlements in the wilderness. Maroon communities, as they were known here, were scattered across the Lowcountry in sparsely populated forests and swamps, and later among the rolling hills of the Upcountry. Populated by both men and women, some of African birth and other born locally, maroons flourished in isolation but were occasionally dispersed by raids of armed militiamen or nearby plantation owners on patrol.
Runaways who sought shelter within urban areas, like Charleston, faced a different but no less dangerous set of challenges. The density of city life meant that urban slaves were under constant surveillance by white citizens and authorities who routinely stopped and questioned unfamiliar faces among the enslaved population. In this environment, an urban fugitive could attempt to survive by living in the shadows and avoiding detection. Such a clandestine lifestyle depended heavily on the assistance of confederates who were willing to risk their lives and property. Because slave owners frequently offered cash rewards for information about escaped fugitives, however, one had to remain vigilant in case an ally decided to profit from the secret they held.
Alternatively, an enslaved fugitive could hide in plain sight, so to speak, by pretending to be a “free person of color” who was not subject to the local laws concerning slavery. Such a ploy, which is mentioned in a number of local runaway slave advertisements, required the fugitive to construct a false identity and to articulate the details of his or her story with confidence when challenged by suspicious authorities. Some urban fugitives appear to have sustained their fictitious lives for years on end, while others failed for want of verisimilitude, and returned to a life of unfree labor.
A simpler and perhaps safer urban strategy was to tell a smaller lie that took advantage of a customary practice that stretched the legal boundaries of slavery. Many enslaved people living in urban settings like Charleston gained permission from their respective owners to work and perhaps even live outside the owner’s house, with some measure of autonomy. In return for this limited freedom, frequently called “hiring out,” enslaved people were required to pay a portion of their income to their respective owners in weekly, monthly, or yearly sums. Some runaways sustained their freedom for a while by claiming that their masters had permitted them to “work out” in Charleston, or another urban center. In such cases, the owner bore the burden of responsibility for tracking down the enslaved fugitive and terminating their enterprising lifestyle.
Traveling beyond one’s familiar territory was a dangerous proposition for any enslaved person in early South Carolina. Dark-skinned individuals traveling alone on roads and waterways were always subject to surveillance and scrutiny. He or she would expect to be stopped and questioned whenever they ventured beyond the customary range of their usual activities. Unless they held uncontestable documentary proof of their freedom, or held a legally-mandated “ticket” or note from their owner describing the nature and range of their errand, any enslaved traveler might be detained, imprisoned, or perhaps even kidnapped and re-enslaved elsewhere.
It might seem logical for an enslaved fugitive, especially in a port town like Charleston, to stow away on an out-bound vessel, or even to try to gain employment as a sailor to escape from the province. Mariners and ship captains working in the slave-holding colonies knew that the law punished all who assisted such fugitives, however, and enslaved runaways also knew that the law reserved the harshest punishments for those who sought to flee the province permanently. Even if a fugitive did manage to stow away on a vessel departing from Charleston harbor, or a train headed northward, there was no guarantee that he or she would find freedom elsewhere, and they might end up being re-enslaved by another party in a new community.
The historical phenomenon known as the Underground Railroad was not a robust institution or pathway, but rather a loosely-organized chain of like-minded people who conspired in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to help enslaved people move from communities in the Southern states, where slavery was legal, to communities in the Northern states and Canada where the practice was deemed illegal. Activity on the so-called Underground Railroad peaked around the middle of the nineteenth century, by which time the long-established slave laws of South Carolina made it very difficult for enslaved people to travel beyond their owner’s property without constant surveillance. Many thousands of individuals from various Southern states might have gained freedom in the North via the Underground Railroad, but the task of escaping the boundaries of South Carolina proved an insurmountable challenge to most local runaways.
Consequences of Capitulation and Capture:
Surviving documentary evidence—including newspaper notices, personal papers, court records, and the like—provides an incomplete paper trail of several thousands of South Carolinians who ran away from slavery. The fragmentary nature of the extant material renders it impossible to estimate the total number of runaways with confidence, however. Likewise, it’s impossible to determine how many of these runaways succeeded in gaining their freedom. Some enslaved people perished in their efforts to escape, and some fugitives were killed by citizens attempting to capture them. Many cases documented in historical sources indicate that some enslaved people ran away multiple times, and most of the men, women, and teenagers who ran away from slavery seem to have returned voluntarily to their lives of servitude after a relatively brief absence.
The laws of early South Carolina distinguished between such short-term offenders and fugitives who actively sought to escape permanently beyond the boundaries of the province. Borrowing a pair of terms from the French colonies of the Caribbean, historians describe these two practices as “petit marronage” and grand marronage”; that is, short-term absences and permanent disappearances. South Carolina’s earliest law to regulate the enslaved population, adopted in early 1691, specified punishments for both enslaved runaways and their conspirators. Beginning in 1696, revisions to the provincial slave code articulated a series of brutal punishments for runaways who made a habit of temporarily absenting themselves from their owner’s service.
For example, the South Carolina slave act of June 1712 (which continued in force until early 1723), directed that first offenders, over the age of sixteen, who had absented themselves for at least twenty days, were to be “publicly and severely whipped, not exceeding forty lashes.” Second offenders, said the law of 1712, “shall be branded with the letter R, on the right cheek.” Third offenders who ran away for at least thirty days “shall be severely whipped, not exceeding forty lashes, and shall have one of his ears cut off.” Male fourth offenders “shall be gelt” (that is, castrated). Female fourth offenders “shall be severely whipped, and branded on the left check with the letter R, and her left ear cut off.” Fifth offenders “shall be tried before two justices of the peace and three freeholders,” who were empowered “to order the cord [Achilles’ tendon] of one of the slave’s legs to be cut off above the heel, or else to pronounce sentence of death upon the slave, at the discretion of the said justices.” Later versions of the South Carolina slave code, from early 1723 to 1865, omitted the brutal corporal punishments prescribed for short-term runaways who returned to their former conditions. Their punishment was apparently left to the discretion of their respective owners, whom the law authorized to punish their enslaved property as they saw fit.
Conversely, starting in 1712, South Carolina’s slave laws focused attention on enslaved people who ran away “with intent to go off from this province,” and enslaved people who were found guilty of trying to entice others to run away from the province. The initial legislation prescribed that captured fugitives who had attempted to flee beyond the province “shall suffer the pains of death,” while those judged guilty of trying to entice another slave to run away “shall be severely whipped, not exceeding forty lashes, and shall also be branded in the forehead with a hot iron, that the mark thereof may remain.” The later punishment was repeated in a 1723 revision of the law, while another change in 1735 empowered courts to punish failed fugitives with “such corporal punishment as the said justices and freeholders shall think proper.” A 1751 revision of the slave code offered a more specific remedy. Enslaved fugitives judged guilty of endeavoring to leave the province should not suffer death, said the law, unless they had actively gathered the necessary provisions, arms, horses, carts, boats, or similar accoutrements to make such escape.
The notorious South Carolina “Negro Act” of 1740, most of which remained in force until the spring of 1865, did not prescribe any specific corporal punishments for enslaved people who ran away. Despite this legal devolution, the act of 1740 expressly declared it to be the duty of “every [free] person in this province to take, apprehend and secure any runaway or fugitive slave,” and to deliver said slave to his or her owner. If the legal owner could not be found or identified, captured fugitives were to be delivered to the Work House in Charleston. Owners of captured runaways held therein could pay the warden to inflict various corporal punishments before redeeming their respective slaves and returning them to their former homes and conditions. The law also empowered the warden of the Work House to sell at auction any enslaved people who were not claimed by their legal owners within eighteen months.
In terms of runaways, the only noteworthy change to the 1740 “Negro Act” in later years occurred in 1788, when the state legislature authorized persons across South Carolina, “having in their possession, or taking up, runaway slaves, to send them to the gaols [jails] of the districts where they may be apprehended,” rather than to the Work House in Charleston. For those curious about the legal viewpoint of enslaved runaways during the final decades of slavery in this state, I’ll direct you to Judge John Belton O’Neall’s 1848 publication, titled The Negro Law of South Carolina, which offers a useful digest of the laws in force during the middle of the nineteenth century.
Although the Fugitive Slave Act ratified by the United States Congress in 1793 required the citizens of the various states to apprehend enslaved runaways who crossed state lines and return them to their lawful owners, officials in most of the Northern states, which abolished slavery in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, refused to enforce the Federal law. The revised Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it more difficult to avoid Federal enforcement, however, and this change narrowed the window of opportunity even further for enslaved runaways from South Carolina and other Southern states to reach freedom in the North.
Runaway Advertisements: A Narrative Ark of Resistance:
Over the course of 133 years, from January of 1732 to January 1865, the surviving newspapers of Charleston contain many thousands of advertisements seeking the capture and return of runaway slaves. In varying degrees of detail, these advertisements provide names, physical descriptions of body shapes, hair styles, teeth, noses, eyes, feet, and scars of individuals who sought to escape from slavery in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. The extant notices also frequently include descriptions of spoken languages, accents, speech patterns, clothing and accessories, personality traits, and descriptions of skills and occupations. Some advertisements even articulate relationships of enslaved people across the geography of the local landscape, so that readers might be watchful for fugitives endeavoring to travel over land to join distant family members.
Most, but not all, runaway advertisements in the newspapers of early Charleston include a small graphic illustration of a person. These depictions, which first appeared here in late October 1735, are generally either dark silhouettes or simple outlines. The published images do not represent the specific individuals described in the advertisements they accompany, but are stylized renderings of generic men, women, and sometimes even families engaged in the act of running away. In the surviving collections of historic newspapers, one sees a stylistic evolution from abstract and cartoonish depictions to more realistic outlines of human forms. Those published in the decades before the American Revolution—when many ships brought people directly from the west coast of Africa—frequently depict an individual with legs and arms in motion, carrying a staff or spear, wearing nothing but a short skirt and a crown-like headdress. Some advertisements show a shirtless man with a capital letter “R” on his chest, identifying him as a runaway. Those printed in the first half of the nineteenth century frequently depict the outline of the familiar fashions of the day, with long trousers and wide-brimmed hats on the men and women with ankle-length skirts, aprons, and headscarves. As works of art, these illustrations are simply caricatures, but they served as effective tools for alerting readers to the nature of the text they accompanied.
In short, these myriad advertisements provide valuable windows into individual stories of desperation and courage. Each one provides a snapshot of a larger narrative that commenced long before the published advertisement and continued, in most cases, long afterwards. These people knew the risks, but chose to embrace the danger and uncertainty of running away rather than continue living under the yoke of slavery. Some of these stories ended in defeat as fugitives surrendered to overpowering forces or perished in their respective quests for freedom. Others ended in triumph for individuals and families who defied the odds and forged new lives outside the bonds of legal slavery.
I believe these miniature stories of enslaved runaways could serve as a valuable trove of educational material for students of all ages. By reading the brief accounts and unpacking the contextual details, we recognize the humanity and agency of thousands of forgotten people who once inhabited our community. At the end of this essay, I've included a list of suggested books for further reading. You can also learn more about this topic by visiting the South Carolina History Room at the Main Library to troll through historic newspapers on microfilm. Alternatively, you can use your CCPL library card to access an online database of digitized newspapers and browse through thousands of runaway advertisements from your own home or classroom.
During my career as a student of South Carolina’s early history, I’ve spent a lot of time reading runaway advertisements printed in the newspapers of eighteenth- and nineteenth- century Charleston—not because I’m trying to become an expert on this topic, but because I find them irresistible. Every advertisement represents a fascinating snapshot of a long-forgotten individual who struggled to find peace and dignity within an oppressive situation. From a creative perspective, one could view each runaway advertisement as a miniature short-story, which an imaginative writer could extend into a compelling work of historical fiction. By following clues imbedded within the advertisements and mining other historical resources, it’s also possible to expand some of these newspaper snapshots into larger biographical sketches.
In next week’s program, for example, a runaway advertisement forms the first clue in reconstructing the tragic story of an African man named Fulliman, who was sold into slavery in in Charleston at the beginning of the nineteenth century and renamed Albro by his owner on the Isle of Palms. After murdering a white man on Dewees Island who had challenged his escape from slavery, Albro’s life ended at a roadside gallows erected in the center of modern Mount Pleasant.
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Brown, Thomas and Leah Sims. Fugitive Slave Advertisements in the City Gazette, Charleston, South Carolina, 1787–1797. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2015.
Carbado, Devon W. The Long Walk to Freedom: Runaway Slave Narratives. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 2012.
Diouf, Sylviane A. Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons. New York: New York University Press, 2014.
Foner, Eric. Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. New York: W. W. Norton, 2015.
Franklin, John Hope. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Leaming, Hugo Prosper. Hidden Americans: Maroons of Virginia and the Carolinas. New York: Garland, 1995.
Lockley, Tim and David Doddington. “Maroon and Slave Communities in South Carolina before 1865,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 113 (April 2012): 125–45.
Lockley, Timothy James, ed. Maroon Communities in South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009.
Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Mullin, Gerald W. Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Nevius, Marcus P. City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp, 1763–1856. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2020.
Olwell, Robert. Masters, Slaves, and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1740–1790. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Roper, L. H. “The 1701 ‘Act for the better ordering of Slaves’: Reconsidering the History of Slavery in Proprietary South Carolina.” William and Mary Quarterly, Third series, Vol. 64, No. 2 (April 2007), 395–418.
Rugemer, Edward B. Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2018.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. Boston: Phillips, Sampson and Co., 1856.
Windley, Lathan A. Runaway Slave Advertisements: A Documentary History from the 1730s to 1790. Volume 3: South Carolina. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.
 See section 19 of Act No. 314, “An Act for the better ordering and governing of Negroes and Slaves,” ratified on 7 June 1712, in David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, Volume 7 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1840), 352–65.
 See section 17 of Act No. 476, “An Act for the better ordering and governing of Negroes and other Slaves,” ratified on 23 February 1722/3, in McCord, Statutes at Large, 7: 371–84; and sections 15 and 16 of Act No. 586, “An Act for the better ordering and governing Negroes and other Slaves,” ratified on 29 March 1735, in McCord, Statutes at Large, 7: 385–97.
 See section 14 of Act No. 790, “An Additional and Explanatory Act to an Act of the General Assembly of this Province, entitled ‘An Act for the Better Ordering and Governing Negroes and Other Slaves in this Province;’ and for continuing such part of the said act as is not altered or amended by this present Act, for the term therein mentioned,” ratified on 17 May 1751, in McCord, Statutes at Large, 7: 420–26.
 See Act No. 1389, “An Act authorizing persons who having in their possession, or taking up, runaway slaves, to send them to the gaols [sic] of the districts where they may be apprehended, and not to the Work-house of Charleston,” ratified on 27 February 1788, in McCord, Statutes at Large, 7: 430–31.