Mobility in Slavery and Freedom:

Mapping Paths of Escape, Enslavement, and Freedom in the U.S., 1830-1850

Written and Illustrated By Laura Brannan

At dusk on a November evening in 1846, Jacob Green was asked an important, possibly life changing question: can you swim? Aboard the steamboat Sultana, traveling to Cleveland, Ohio with his enslaver who had just re-captured him months after he escaped slavery, Jacob probably knew he faced an easy decision but a difficult path forward. Nevertheless, he responded yes to the sympathetic captain, crawled out of a window of the ship, and swam to the shores of Ohio before his enslaver could notice his absence. He arrived safely to the shores of the free state of Ohio and presumably walked to the city of Zanesville, where he lived as a free man - until he was imprisoned four months later on suspicion of breaking windows.1 From there, a Kentucky enslaver bought Jacob and took him to Cincinnati then Louisville, Kentucky.

Jacob’s unique story does not stop there, but viewing these small legs of his travels already adds a number of insights into the history of slavery, resistance, and movement in the antebellum United States. First, Jacob’s journey demonstrates that the path to freedom is not linear, easy, or guaranteed, for by the time he is in Louisville, he is re-enslaved for the second time with two attempted escapes under his belt. Secondly, and most importantly, Jacob’s story exemplifies that mobility is integral to enslaved people’s lives in slavery, freedom, and the liminal. Jacob radically escapes enslavement by jumping off a boat and swimming to a free shore, relocates himself to Zanesville once he is free, and then is forced to travel to Cincinnati and Louisville once he is re-enslaved. He, like many other enslaved people of the antebellum era, constantly moved between not only different geographical areas but also between different conditions of enslaved, free, and in between.

Resistance and Movement

With the rise of social history in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, studies about the lives of enslaved people also grew. Delving further into the experiences of enslaved people posed more questions around their agency; if they resisted their enslavers, and if so, how; and other experiences of the oppression they faced, the humanity in their lives, and their resiliency. Resistance in particular was a heavily studied concept during the turn of social history in the U.S., as evidenced by Eugene Genovese’s well-circulated theory of accommodation, the act of “accepting what could not be helped without falling prey to the pressures [of the] dehumanization [of slavery].”2 Early formative scholarship on resistance in slavery was situated around the accommodation debate and later, the histories of runaways were explored, which is considered a heavily male act.3 Even though recent historians are bringing to light different ways enslaved people covertly resisted the dominations of slavery, particularly absenteeism and women purposefully delaying or negotiating tasks, the enslaved people who ran away or escaped from their enslaver are still a fruitful category of study when attempting to understand resistance, its relationship to movement, and movement’s relationship to slavery and freedom.4

Rashuana Johnson’s Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions contributes to these themes by arguing that in the case of New Orleans’ slavery, physical movement did not always equate to freedom, and was sometimes integral to enslavement.5 In the case of the port city of New Orleans, some enslaved people were forced to accompany enslavers on travels or forced to complete tasks which required travel both within and outside of certain enslaver’s geographical reach. Johnson’s study between 1790 to 1820 demonstrates that some enslaved people peddled around the city to sell products for their enslavers, accompanied enslavers across the Atlantic, and delivered correspondences for enslavers throughout the state while some also fled their conditions of enslavement by hoping on a steamboat in the port or escaping by foot. Johnson claims that mobility is integral to both slavery and freedom, yet only does so through a case study in the arguably exceptional New Orleans, causing doubt as to how applicable her argument is to other areas and time periods.

Recent scholarship such as Susan O’Donovan’s article “Thinking about the Political Lives of Slaves” evidences that enslaved people outside of New Orleans and urban cities were also mobile while enslaved, whether it was local, regional, international, rural, or urban travel. Enslaved people carried mail down rural roads, moved enslavers’ cargoes and food crops across regions, and accompanied enslavers to new locations as maids and valets.6 This is a helpful addition in sketching the mobility of people while enslaved, and O’Donovan even interestingly suggests that mobility shaped enslaved people’s thoughts on abolition preceding the Civil War.7 Yet O’Donovan mostly focuses on mobile tasks within slavery, thus opening up the need for more scholarship on viewing both slavery and freedom through the lens of mobility. This project, through visualizing the movement of nine individuals who escaped slavery, analyzes how people were objectified, humanized, and assisted by different forms of mobility for the purposes of both slavery and freedom.

Sources and Methodology

Although there are not as many recorded narratives about escaping slavery four times such as Jacob Green’s, his story still emphasizes how mobile enslaved people truly were in slavery, freedom, and the liminal. This project maps the paths of famous and anonymous people who escaped slavery from narratives and biographies published in Documenting the American South, North American Slave Narratives, runaway slave newspaper advertisements from Freedom on the Move, and black abolition newspapers from University of Michigan’s Black Abolitionist Archive. Piecing together the lives of nine enslaved people through the axis of movement can add further historical insights into the different meanings and effects of slavery and freedom, considerably blurring the lines between the two. Furthermore, visualizing the different paths of freedom, slavery, and escaping also sheds light on the different powered dynamics around forcing, resisting, and manipulating forms of mobility. Enslaved people traveling under an enslavers’ orders could learn not only about surrounding geography but about the expectations and assumptions around gender, transportation, and freedom, which could facilitate later escapes. Though the individual people mapped are not representative of the time period or of all escapees from slavery in the U.S., mapping and comparing their different movements suggests potential areas for further study of movement, transportation, and resistance in slavery and freedom.

Moving while Enslaved, Escaping, and Free

People largely escaped slavery in the U.S. by traveling from South to North. The below map demonstrates the general Northward direction of escapees, particularly on the East Coast (see Figure 1). This could have been due to both the number of urban and port cities that existed throughout the East Coast, such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City, but slavery was also generally and historically most dominant throughout the Eastern U.S. Notice that most movements of freedom are North with a few mapped across the Atlantic to England. The trans-Atlantic travel mostly accounts for Frederick Douglass’ speaking tours after the Civil War and William and Ellen Craft’s journeys to escape their enslaver after the 1850 Slave Fugitive Law Act was passed. This act empowered former enslavers to re-enslave any former laborer caught in any state. This was significant because the law previously stated that once an enslaved person was located in a free state, no one – including their former enslaver – could re-capture them. Both of these movements across the Atlantic, although both considered “free,” demonstrate the vastly different dimensions and lived experiences of freedom.

Movements of Nine Escapees, 1830-1850

Figure 1. This figure maps the total recorded paths of nine individuals who escaped slavery between 1830 to 1850 in the U.S. Each line represents an individual’s journey, except for William and Ellen Craft, who are represented as one line, since they completed the same routes. Each person’s movement is represented by a different color line: red is moving while enslaved, green is moving while escaping, and blue is moving while free. The starting point for each person is shown in the popup labels. Zoom in around Baltimore, Maryland to see the different starting locations of Jacob Green, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. Or click outside of label for all of them to disappear. Each gray circle represents a stop on an individual’s journey. Click on a point to see the name of the traveler, the year they stopped at the location, and if possible, the transportation they took to the location.

Harriet A. Jacobs, alongside William and Ellen Craft, demonstrates that freedom is not always a stopping point that can be unequivocally “reached.” After escaping slavery, Harriet A. Jacobs traveled from New York City to Boston to relocate her children and then to Rochester, New York to avoid her former enslaver and possible re-capture (see Figure 2). Though she relocated to Rochester in 1849 before the Fugitive Law Act was passed, Jacobs’ movement indicates that capturing and re-enslaving people was happening to some extent before the 1850 law. Similar to the Crafts, although Jacobs’ life was considered free, she still feared re-enslavement, thus suggesting that one’s life in freedom could still be considered a more liminal state between freedom and slavery.

Additionally, people moved while both confined to and escaping from slavery. Though the movement of enslavement via the red line is only represented in Figure 1 minimally, the fact that there are four instances of enslaved movement from nine randomly selected individuals reaffirms the scholarship that depending on the context, enslaved people were forced to move often for their enslaver.8 Figure 1 also demonstrates that the lines of escape are substantially longer than other paths of travel, which suggests enslaved people might have wanted to travel as far North as possible, if they had no other destination in mind.

Moving While Free: The Crafts and Harriet A. Jacobs, 1849 and 1850

Figure 2: This figure maps the movements of Harriet A. Jacobs and William and Ellen Craft. The Crafts are represented as one line since their movements are identical. Each person’s movement is represented by a different color line: red is moving while enslaved, green is moving while escaping, and blue is moving while free. The circles with a bigger radius indicate the start and end point in each person’s journey, while the start point additionally has a popup label for each person’s name. Here both journeys have multiple blue lines, representing the multiple travels they made while free, both for fear of re-capture by their former enslaver. Jacobs first re-located with her children to Boston then re-located again to Rochester because she feared running into her former enslaver in Boston. The Crafts also left Boston for fear of re-capture, traveling to England in direct response to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law Act. The Crafts returned to their original starting point in Atlanta, Georgia after the Civil War.

The case of Frederick Douglass, who escaped enslavement from Baltimore, Maryland in 1838, demonstrates that mobility and transportation were integral to his rural enslavement and international freedom. Born and enslaved on a plantation on the Maryland coast, Douglass’ enslaver sent him to Baltimore to work in a shipyard, back to the rural coast to work on another plantation, and finally back to Baltimore to work in a shipyard again. From there, Douglass escaped to Wilmington, then Philadelphia, and then New York. Later in freedom, he relocated to New Bedford, Massachusetts and traveled abroad on speaking tours during the Civil War. Douglass’ early movements point to how mobility can be forced upon an enslaved person for the purposes of the enslaver. Though O’Donovan has recently pointed out enslaved mobility was not confined to urban spaces, Douglass’ story exemplifies that rural enslavement could be mobile, a concept often overlooked in scholarship.

Douglass’ multiple uses of transportation also shows that there are different methods and options for mobility. Douglass interestingly escaped from Baltimore by disguising himself as a free sailor on a train to Wilmington, Delaware. From there, he sailed to Philadelphia, then rode a train from Philadelphia to New York where he was free. This journey gestures to the benefits of combining different modes of transportation and the manipulation of mobility through disguising oneself while traveling. Douglass posing as a free sailor on a train in his first leg of escaping is an interesting example of the different ways enslaved people could use knowledge of transportation to their advantage. Not only was he capitalizing on the fluid constructs between enslaved and free by posing as a free person, but by posing as a sailor, he was also capitalizing on the different meanings and implications associated with transportation.9 For instance, a sailor traveling by train to a city with waterways implies that they are traveling by train in order to reach their boat, validating the disguise. Douglass undoubtedly learned about the persona of sailors when his enslaver sent him to Baltimore by steamboat; hence, former movements in slavery can help future movements of escape and freedom.

Frederick Douglass’ Movement, 1833-1878

Figure 3. This figure maps the different movements of Frederick Douglass, from 1833 to 1878. His different types of movements are represented by different color lines: red is moving while enslaved, green is moving while escaping, and blue is moving while free. The two circles with larger radiuses indicate the start and end points of his journey, while the start point additionally has a popup label of his name. Douglass was first enslaved in Easton, Maryland, sent back and forth to Baltimore by his enslaver, eventually escaped from Baltimore to Wilmington by train, continued to Philadelphia by boat, and finished his final leg of escape by traveling to New York City by train. Later, as a comfortably free man, he traveled to Europe for speaking tours for abolition and eventually settled in Washington, D.C. in 1878.

Comparing the nine individuals’ journeys indicates how important transportation could be for different types of movement in slavery and freedom. Figure 4 shows that most recorded transportations for the nine individuals were boats followed by trains. For the nine individuals, travel by boat, and thus the use of waterways, is the most prominent form of transit for all three types of motions of enslavement, escaping, and free. Boats mostly traversed rivers for either purposes of enslavement or escapement; for example, the alias “Aunt Nancy” escaped to St. Louis from New Orleans traveling up a river via steamboat while Frederick Douglass travelled across rivers by boat while enslaved and escaping. The only case of a lake travel via boat was Jacob Green’s famous example of jumping overboard, and the only instances of ocean travel via boat are Douglass and the Crafts’ travels abroad while free. Comparing the patterns of waterway travels between these people shows the potential for further studies on the differences between bodies of water and boats used in slavery, freedom, and the in between.

Trains are also an important mode of transportation, mostly for people attempting to escape slavery. Figure 4 suggests that trains substantially facilitated the act of disguise while escaping, as the circle markers with a larger radius indicate destinations reached via disguise. Every person in this dataset who took a train did so under disguise. This reaffirms scholarship that in the 1840s and 1850s, the U.S. began to see more runaways escaping simultaneously by train and by disguise.10

Furthermore, everyone who disguised themselves in the dataset, besides Frederick Douglass, actually disguised themselves as the other gender, essentially cross-dressing. This demonstrates how enslaved people understood and capitalized on not only the fluid constructions between enslaved and free, but also the constructed expressions and performances white people expected of gender.11 Additionally, the acts of disguising and cross-dressing reinforce David Waldstreicher’s argument in his article “Reading the Runaways,” that in self-fashioning disguises to escape, enslaved people capitalized on and manipulated enslavers’ assumptions.12 Capitalizing on different assumptions and expectations of transportation, gender, and freedom provides more insight into the different dimensions of enslaved people’s understanding and observations of the world and again points to additional avenues of further study in its relation to resistance, slavery, and freedom.

Transportation and Disguises, 1830-1850:

Transportation Types Displayed By Color and Disguise Displayed By Larger Circles